Oct 7, 2022

The Theater of David Byrne's Mind

It all started when the rockstar David Byrne did a Freaky-Friday-like body-swap with a Barbie Doll. That’s what inspired him — along with his collaborator Mala Gaonkar — to transform a 15,000 square-foot warehouse in Denver, Colorado into a brainy funhouse known as the Theater of the Mind.

This episode, co-Host Latif Nasser moderates a live conversation between Byrne and Neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The trio talk about how we don’t see what we think we see, don’t hear what we think we hear, and don’t know what we think we know, but also how all that… might actually be a good thing.

Special thanks to Charlie Miller and everyone else at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Emily Simoness and everyone else at the Arbutus Foundation, Boen Wang, and Heather Radke.


Episode Credits:

Produced by Suzie Lechtenberg



Theater of the mind website: https://theateroftheminddenver.com/


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Leadership support for Radiolab’s science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation Initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


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LULU MULLER: Yeah, I don't know the program ...

LATIF NASSER: Well, let me just—let me just do the thing.

LULU: Yeah, do the thing and then—because I'm still like, I don't quite get it.

LATIF: Okay, great. Okay, Latif.

LULU: Lulu.

LATIF: Radiolab. Lulu, you have been out there making your chart-topping new series Terrestrials.

LULU: [laughs] Yes. I've been down in the musical, nature, children's trenches.

LATIF: Yeah, that's right.

LULU: And you were out in the world.

LATIF: Yeah. So I've been doing some other stuff. I've been sort of keeping myself busy.

LULU: Uh-huh.

LATIF: So I wanted to tell you about one of the projects that I—that I did, which is a few weeks ago our executive producer Suzie Lechtenberg and I went to Denver, Colorado. And I moderated a conversation with the one and only literal rock star David Byrne.

LULU: What was getting the call to do that like?

LATIF: Oh, man, it was—it was—well first, let me say if you happen to not know who David Byrne is, he was the front man of and co-founder of the band Talking Heads. You know, you've probably seen him, like, on HBO or on Broadway or ...

LULU: Yeah, his music is in your head.

LATIF: For sure.

LULU: Even if you don't realize it.

LATIF: For sure. Yes.

ANNOUNCER: Hello, everyone. Welcome. Thank you for being here!

LATIF: So the reason that they asked me to do an event with him was that he created this immersive theatrical—it's like a happening. I don't know. It's an event? I don't know what you call it.

ANNOUNCER: We are here tonight to celebrate the world premiere production of Theater of the Mind, an experience many years in the making.

LATIF: There was an article about it, and it basically just said—it's like the headline was "Take A Trip Through David Byrne's Head." Which is basically what it is.

LULU: [laughs]

LATIF: It's like a giant warehouse where you walk through.

LULU: And, like, hear things and see things.

LATIF: And hear things and see things. And then it's also very kind of—it involves a lot of neuroscience ...

LULU: Mmm!

LATIF: ... about ...

LULU: I'm sensing why they called Mr. Latif Nasser.

ANNOUNCER: And now it is my great pleasure ...

LATIF: That's right. Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

ANNOUNCER: ... to introduce our moderator for this evening. Please welcome to the stage Latif Nasser.

LATIF: So basically it was this—it was a live conversation. There were 900 people in this giant ballroom, and I was on stage with David Byrne, and the neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley from Dartmouth College.


DAVID BYRNE: [laughs]

LATIF: Wow! Welcome. Welcome everybody.

LATIF: So what I want to do today is play for you and for everyone some of that conversation.

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: You don't need to have seen the show for it to make sense. The vast majority of the people in the audience had not seen the show.

LULU: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: Instead what we've got planned for tonight is something a bit different.

LATIF: But there's sort of two reasons I'm playing it. One is because it feels like a throwback to very early old-school Radiolab when every episode was about neuroscience. But also, like, I found this conversation—like, I found it sort of unsettling.

LULU: Hmm.

LATIF: It kind of makes this argument, I think, both David and Thalia do, where it's like you're not perceiving what you think you're perceiving, you're not seeing what you think you're seeing, you're not hearing what you think you're hearing. You don't know what you think you know. But also, that's—none of that is necessarily a bad thing.

LULU: Well, that's how I'm taking it right now.

LATIF: But—but there's another way to take all this that I think Thalia and David both will kind of gift to you.

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: In the course of this conversation.

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: So here we go.


LATIF: So to start, Thalia, I'll actually—I'll rope you in a moment, but first I just wanted to get off the top the origin story of this show, Theater of The Mind, which is the reason why we are all here. David, just tell us what is Theater of the Mind and how did it start?

DAVID BYRNE: Well, in 2011, I think it was, I read a story in a magazine called New Scientist about a experimental lab in Stockholm that—and their paper was called "Being Barbie," and ...

LATIF: Barbie.

DAVID BYRNE: Barbie. Like the doll.


DAVID BYRNE: They were exaggerating a little bit, but basically, it was—the experiment, you as the subject is embodied in the body of a doll. You felt like you were doll sized. What they found interesting was that being that size changed your relationship to everything: how far away you thought things were, how big you thought things were. That those things weren't constant, but they were based on your body image. And if you thought you were small then things looked big, and—but I read this, and they didn't use a Barbie doll. Barbie dolls are anatomically ...

LATIF: Not human beings?

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, not really human beings.

LATIF: [laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: You can't really be embodied in a Barbie doll. So ...

LATIF: Unfortunately for those of you who are hoping for such a thing.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, if you were hoping.

LATIF: Yeah.

DAVID BYRNE: I read—I read this, and my first thought was, "I want to do this. I want to experience this." So I wrote to them kind of cold, and wrote to them and said, "I would love to present your experiment in an art gallery in New York. Sort of one person at a time, visitors to the art gallery could experience what you've—what you're doing." Much, much later I got a response that was a little bit fantastical and very imaginative but was not really a yes.

LATIF: [laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: [laughs] I put it aside, but didn't forget it. And I, just as an amateur enthusiast, I read more books and things about neuroscience and psychology and things, and began to kind of collect other things. So it was like, "Oh, that thing sounds like it'd be fun to do," or "That sounds like it'd be really amazing to experience. And would that change the way I see things?" I started collecting a thing. I ran into the woman Mala Gaonkar, who became my writing partner on this. And we both saw science as being a very creative endeavor, very much akin to the arts. So we thought what if we could present more of these things, and not just one? And make a whole little project out of it? So we dreamed and collected things and kept at it and started doing workshops. And eventually we did sort of a smaller version in Menlo Park, California, that's Silicon Valley. And it included some of the experiences that are in the present show, but it also included some other ones that were more kind of social and psychological and things like that.

DAVID BYRNE: And we discovered that some of those things didn't—they worked as science, the results were valid in the way people responded, but they didn't work as an audience experience.

LATIF: Hmm. Because they were boring? Like, what ...

DAVID BYRNE: Well, you want me to go—you want me to go into it? All right. You're familiar with this one, I think. One of them was based on the work of a guy named Alex Todorov, who does a lot of work on faces, face recognition, how you determine, you know, what people are expressing with their faces. So he did one where you would be shown very quickly two images of politicians. They were real politicians, but that you didn't know them. They weren't well-known politicians, they were from different regional areas. You weren't told what party they were from. You weren't told their names, anything else. You just saw these headshots. Then you were asked, "Tell us which one you think is gonna win." And then we'd go to the next one, then the next and the next. You'd tally up the average of all the people, and it could be as high as 70 percent matched the election results.

LATIF: Whoof!

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, whoof. Whoof. That was the audience reaction, too. It was like, "I didn't decide that!" And it was just like bad news. It was bad news.

LATIF: Well, it undermines your faith in democracy a little bit.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, yeah.

LATIF: Yeah.

DAVID BYRNE: All that. Undermines your faith in democracy, makes you feel like, "Oh, God. Is that—is that what we are? Is that the way we are? Really? That's what you're telling us here?" I realized no, there's another way to do this, so we had to—it's valid science and it's interesting work, but as a show it did not work. So we learned that, and we also learned that what we were doing in the way we were presenting it was much more—it needed to be more theatrical than just a series of experiences. That led us basically to where we were.

DAVID BYRNE: It turns out a friend of Charlie's who was just standing here ...

LATIF: Charlie Miller, who's a producer for Theater of the Mind.

DAVID BYRNE: ... saw that version and mentioned it to Charlie, and eventually Charlie tracked me down. 2018, maybe? And Charlie said, "I'm interested in your show. I want you to come and look at a possible space. It was a grow space that had ...

LATIF: [laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: ... that had been busted.

LATIF: Amazing.

DAVID BYRNE: They've been busted for looping, which means they're selling small quantities to the same people over and over and over again, which you're not allowed to do.

LATIF: Whoa.

DAVID BYRNE: And it was kind of—kind of sort of a crime scene.

LATIF: God bless you, Denver.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah. We walked into the space, which kind of—well, it was big enough, and the police had sawed the top off the safe.

LATIF: Oh, wow!

DAVID BYRNE: As many of you probably know, this business—that business is all cash business.

LATIF: [laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: [laughs]

LATIF: How did we get here? What are we talking about?

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, all right.

LATIF: Anyway.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, long story short ...

LATIF: Yeah.

DAVID BYRNE: I came back again. We looked at other places—that one didn't work out. And eventually ...

LATIF: Okay.

DAVID BYRNE: ... script rewrites. We had a director, Andrew Scoville, who did an incredible job. Incredible creative team.

LATIF: So—right, so kind of just for those of you who—just to give you the bare bones of what the show is, so it's exactly as David said, it's a theatrical experience, a series of rooms you go through where each room, they're sort of based on different neuroscientific research. And so I saw the show last night. When I went through the show, there was one of the experiments that sort of caught my ear, and I wanted to play it for everybody tonight. It involves a gorgeous piece of orchestral music. Shall we do it?

[audience cheers]

LATIF: Okay, can we play the tritone?

[two organ notes]

LATIF: Wait, so that was it.

[audience laughs]

LATIF: Okay, and we will play it again, but before we do, I want you to listen to the notes carefully and pay attention to whether the notes are going up, whether they're ascending, or going down, whether they're descending. If you hear them going up, I want you to raise your hand. If they're going down, put your hand on your heart. Okay? And Thalia and David, you do it, too.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah. Can we ask people to close their eyes?

LATIF: Yeah, that's right. Right.

DAVID BYRNE: So you're not influenced by what your neighbors think.

LATIF: So everybody close your eyes. Close your eyes. Close my eyes. Okay, let's play the tritone again.

[two organ notes]

LATIF: Okay. So again, up if it's up. On your—on your heart if it's going down. Whoa!


LATIF: I think it's probably ...

DAVID BYRNE: It's kind of extraordinary.

LATIF: ... 50-50-ish maybe? A little more on heart, maybe? Okay. Now let's do it—I'm gonna play it one more time. Now, like, actively try to hear the other thing and if you can raise your hand—okay, okay let's play the tritone again.

[two organ notes]

DAVID BYRNE: You can flip from one to the other?

THALIA WHEATLEY: Yeah, I can flip.

LATIF: Wow, I could not flip. Okay, okay. So Thalia, I know this is not exactly your area of expertise, but what just happened? And is it just that all the people who didn't hear what I heard need to go to an audiologist or something?

THALIA WHEATLEY: [laughs] I didn't hear what you heard.

LATIF: Okay.

THALIA WHEATLEY: Yeah. So what you just heard was a pair of Shepard tones, a half octave apart. And the Shepard tone's really interesting because it's the same note played in all the octaves at the same time. So imagine you're at a keyboard and you're hitting all of the Cs, right? And then that's a Shepard tone C. And then you're hitting all of the F sharps, that's a Shepard tone F-sharp. Now—and you might know this: if you're sitting in front of a keyboard, the middle octave kind of sounds to our ears as that it's the louder of the octaves. Like, as you go further away from the middle to the ends of the keyboard it gets quieter.

THALIA WHEATLEY: And that's really helpful because that orients us to where we are in pitch space, so we can tell whether things are going up or down. But remember that Shepard tones are all of the Cs at the same time, so there is no help from where you are on the keyboard. And if you think about it, any given C is, you know, up from one F sharp and down from another, and all the—one F sharp is up from another C and down from the C. So it's perfectly ambiguous. There is no right answer, right?

THALIA WHEATLEY: So our brains don't really like ambiguity. We want answers to things. So all of us—all of our brains were trying to resolve what was going on, right? And there's no right answer, but people have a tendency to go one way or the other. And you can use conscious control. Some of us can use conscious control to flip it, but it's hard. But we all have a natural tendency to go one way or the other.

LATIF: Yeah. David, I'm curious. As a musician—well, first of all, the fact that you've heard this now so many times, but also is a musician are you hearing this different from the rest of us?

DAVID BYRNE: No, not at all. I think I'm as susceptible as anyone else. For me, what is incredibly interesting about this is that what we just saw, that the audience gets more or less split, then you realize what other things are we not experiencing the same?

LATIF: Yeah.

DAVID BYRNE: What are—we seeing things different? Are we tasting things different? What else that we don't even know about?

LATIF: Right. Thalia, is there—like, how do you become one person who goes one way or the other?

THALIA WHEATLEY: Yeah. I mean, this is where for me it gets really psychologically interesting and deep, because it's not random. It's based on your experiences. So it's based on the sounds you hear in your daily life. So there are actually parts of the country tend to go one way that another part of the country goes another way. And it's the accents that you're hearing, it's the languages that you're hearing, it's the music that you're steeping in. Your experiences are tuning your brain, or your brain wants to adapt to the environment it's in, and so it wants to fit. And so it's constantly, continuously in flux, right?

THALIA WHEATLEY: We are the sounds we hear, we're the music we listen to, just as we are the books we read, and the films we watch, and the conversations we engage in. Our minds are constantly changing and adapting. We're continuously in flux.

LATIF: Hmm. Well, okay. So there is actually another experiment that you do with your students at Dartmouth. You want to do it right here right now?

THALIA WHEATLEY: Sure. This is fun, too. Okay, so I'm gonna show you ...

LATIF: Okay, so—so at this point during the show, we did a thing with the audience where we flashed them two images.

THALIA WHEATLEY: A pair of images, okay? And they are very similar.

LATIF: It looked like they were identical pictures of a big red barn in a lush, green, wooded area, right?

LULU: Okay. Lovely.

LATIF: And they looked identical.

LULU: Okay.

THALIA WHEATLEY: But they're not perfectly the same.

LATIF: And then Thalia told us that there was one non-trivial difference between these two images.

THALIA WHEATLEY: And I want you to try to spot the change from one image to the other. And I want you to raise your hand as soon as you spot it. Okay? All right.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah. Don't shout out what it is.

THALIA WHEATLEY: Don't shout what it is. Yeah, just raise your hand when you see it.

LATIF: So—and we went back and forth, so it'd be like image A, image B. Image A, image B. Image A, image B. And you're just literally going flashing back and forth, back and forth. And as you're looking at it, your eyes are kind of like, racing around, trying to, like ...

LULU: To be like, "Where's the gorilla?"

LATIF: Yeah, exactly.

LULU: "Where's the orange flower?" Yeah, okay.

LATIF: Totally. And it was like, "Okay, raise your hand if you see it."

THALIA WHEATLEY: Okay, three hands are up. Four, five, six, seven, eight, ten. I'm gonna say 20.

LATIF: And, like, people would, like, raise their hands slowly in this 900-person audience.

THALIA WHEATLEY: 30. Come on. Keep trying!

LULU: Wow!

LATIF: People would slowly raise their hand as they saw it.

THALIA WHEATLEY: All right, what are we up to? About 25 percent, 30 percent?

LATIF: If you have not seen it yet and you are very frustrated, know that it took me way longer.

LATIF: It took me literally the entire dress rehearsal to figure this out.

THALIA WHEATLEY: Okay, we're about half the room now. All right. Should we give them a hint?

LATIF: Yeah, give them a hint.

THALIA WHEATLEY: All right. Look at the tree branch.

[audience laughs]

LATIF: [laughs] I love that!


LATIF: Off of the tree branch was another branch that had, like, leaves and bright red berries and, like, it was like a—it was like a huge thing.

THALIA WHEATLEY: So what—how could you miss? It's not like a subtle—right? How could you miss that? And the reason that is surprising to us that we miss it is because we walk around, and our brains deliver us this beautiful image of seeing all of this room all at once. All color out to the edges, all perfectly detailed. That's not actually how we see. First of all, there isn't color in the world—that's our brains painting color onto the world based on wavelengths of light. And we don't see detail all around us. That's our brain constructing it based on a lot of assumptions.

THALIA WHEATLEY: How we actually see is our attention picks out some details, details, details, details with our eye movements, four times a second or so. And from that little bits of information, we paint out the entire thing. That's an amazing hallucination! It's an amazing construction of reality that our brains do this and do this so well that you have to create these kinds of visual Illusions just to see, like, the man behind the curtain, right? Just to see who's creating this Wizard of Oz.

THALIA WHEATLEY: Because we don't see all this. We just see that info. And why some people got it faster than others? If you got it right away, it's because you just got lucky.

[audience laughs]

THALIA WHEATLEY: You just happened to look at just the spot that changed. And others of you are like, "Uh? Uh" And then you kind of do it, like, methodically you know?

LATIF: [laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: [laughs]

THALIA WHEATLEY: That's why it took so long because that's how vision works. But aren't we lucky that we have brains that create these beautiful images for us?

[audience applauds]

LATIF: David, how long did it take you?

DAVID BYRNE: It took me forever. It took me a really long time.

LATIF: Funny.

LATIF: Okay, we're gonna take a quick break. When we come back, the conversation will go from our individual ways of perceiving the world to what that means when we interact with each other. That's in just a minute.


LATIF: We're back! Picking up again where we left off in the live convo I had with David Byrne and Thalia Wheatley on stage live at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

LATIF: Thalia, your research sort of takes this even a step further. So if we're all perceiving the world differently and then we're interacting with one another, how does that play out? What happens next? You have a few examples of this from your own research, from your colleagues' research.

THALIA WHEATLEY: Right. Well, it's not the case that we see—we all see the world differently. I think things just couldn't get off the ground if we were all completely different. We kind of cluster together. Some of us see the world more similarly than others. And that's important. And we've known for a long time, by the way, that people cluster together. I mean, your friends probably are around the same age as you, probably the same gender as you, right? People kind of cluster. Girls want to be with the girls. That's an old Talking Heads reference if you get that.

LATIF: [laughs]

THALIA WHEATLEY: But demographics only go so far, right? I'm not friends with all the girls. I'm only, you know—our inner circle is like four to six people big. So how do we choose who those people are? And it turns out that friends' brains are remarkably similar. They process the world in remarkably similar ways. We took—we took people who were friends and we took people who were friends of friends. So these are people that are not directly friends but they have a friend in common. And we took people who are three degrees separated: friends of friends of friends. And we scanned their brains while they watched comedy clips, music videos, politics, science, nature, all sorts of things. And we found that friends' brains were in sync. They weren't watching them together, they were in the scanner independently, and they'd never seen them before together, but they were processing those video clips in the same way. And people who were friends of friends were a little less similar, and people who were friends of friends of friends were even more dissimilar.

THALIA WHEATLEY: And we just did a study actually where we got people who had just come off the bus to Dartmouth, college students before they met each other, and we put them in a brain scanner and we scan their brains. And then we waited until the social network got stable and they had found each other. And lo and behold, we could take their brain activity when they were strangers and we could predict who's gonna become friends, who's gonna become friends of friends.

LATIF: Spooky!

THALIA WHEATLEY: And who's gonna become friends of friends of friends. Yeah, it's pretty cool.

[audience applauds]


DAVID BYRNE: Yikes! Does Facebook know about this?

THALIA WHEATLEY: Yeah. Now they do. There was a recent—there's a study, it wasn't mine, but they used our technique. This is about a month ago that it came out where married couples, it predicts married couples' satisfaction with their marriage: how synchronize they are, how similar their brain activities are. So opposites attract, but if you want the long haul, it's similarity all the way down.

LATIF: So interesting! So—so actually, we're sort of magnetically pulled to—and kept there to people like us.

THALIA WHEATLEY: Yes. It makes us feel connected. It's—it's about common ground. It's we—when we're with our friends, it's effortless. We're in sync. We're literally in sync. And then we can have a conversation and go on a collective road trip all over the place and it's fun, right? It's wonderful, it's ...

LATIF: Comfortable.

THALIA WHEATLEY: It's so easy. It's comfortable being in sync. I mean, when we're in—at a music concert, I think what's great about live music performance, and I'm so glad—my partner and I just went to a live music performance, and it had been so long because of COVID.

LATIF: Yeah.

THALIA WHEATLEY: But, you know, you're there with everybody just bopping together and tapping, and it's just the best, right? It just feels right. So yeah, synchrony is—is great to an extent.

LATIF: Yeah. Yeah. David, have you ever been to a live concert? Or ...

DAVID BYRNE: [laughs] I've experienced that same phenomena on the stage, yes, playing together with other musicians. You give up a little bit of yourself in order to synchronize with other people, but you gain something else. You really feel this kind of lifting. And the audience feels the same thing. They're participating in that too. This—so it's this ecstatic, wonderful, communal thing. It also—but it also can be used for whatever ends you want to use it for. In the military, it's used—they're drilling people, marching them back and forth. And that marching helps cement them as a synchronized unit, and helps people act as a team. Which you want—and if you're military, you want them to do that. You want everybody to act in sync.

DAVID BYRNE: But it can be used to kind of direct people to do things like that. And so one could say that music and that kind of synchronized behavior is neutral, but you have to, yes, be careful how it's being used.

LATIF: Have you seen any of that dark side in your research? Or in—yeah, what—I don't know. What other ...


LATIF: Yeah.

THALIA WHEATLEY: I think—well, I think what happens when you take it to the extreme, so it feels good, and we want to find the people that we're in sync with and that's ...

LATIF: It's so great.

THALIA WHEATLEY: It's just so great. And you think about, like, music as the foundation of ritual. You think about the songs that we sing at rituals, like Happy Birthday to You or Dayenu at Passover, what have you, it's always songs that we can all sing together in unison and feel that bond, right? It's all a good thing. But if you take it to the extreme, what you get are echo chambers. If you are only looking for people who think like you, who synchronize with you, then you play that out and you get these bubbles, right? And you get stagnation, you get people being derivative because they're just playing the same things.

THALIA WHEATLEY: And so you've got to—I think there's a human drive to synchronize and be as one and communal. And that's great. But you also need a kind of countervailing force, that's going to not let it get too far. So you need the—you need the people that have the unpopular opinions, that don't synchronize, that have an independent voice, that—just to pull that, pull that out so that we don't totally get in our own heads and in this bubble. You've got to keep trying to get out, to change the key, to change the story.

LATIF: Huh. Do you know any weirdos like that, David? [laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: Weirdos like who?

LATIF: Yeah. You know, I don't know. She's talking so abstractly. But no, but—but that does seem that—like, it actually does seem like a thing you do well. You don't kind of just find the beat of everybody else's drum, you kind of find your own. And you're—like, you're well known for, for example, I read a—I think it was in Pitchfork. There was a line that was like, "David Byrne would collaborate with anybody for half a bag of Doritos."

[audience laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: There's some truth to that.

LATIF: Yeah.

[audience laughs]

LATIF: But ...

DAVID BYRNE: I love collaborating.

LATIF: And—but also with people who are not necessarily the people whose brains light up in exactly the same—maybe people across—you know, different kinds of musicians across generations. Like, you collaborate with high school kids, you do all kinds of different things like that.

DAVID BYRNE: I love that experience of kind of getting out of my comfort zone, but at the same time, I realized that part of that collaboration is finding that place where you can kind of synchronize and find something in common. So it's a little bit of both.

THALIA WHEATLEY: A little bit of both.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah. I'm also—I'm also aware that yeah, I go to concerts and participate in them. Sometimes when everybody's moving en masse, I find it slightly frightening.


DAVID BYRNE: Even when I'm the—even when I'm the one singing.

LATIF: Really?

DAVID BYRNE: I find I'm going, "Oh, this is a little bit too much power here."


DAVID BYRNE: You know, you go, "Can I subvert this? Or ..."

LATIF: So what do you do?

DAVID BYRNE: Maybe make a joke. or ...

LATIF: Yeah.

DAVID BYRNE: Loosen things up a little bit.

LATIF: A joke that only half the people in the audience will get.

[audience laughs]

LATIF: Yeah, can you—like, are there collaborations like that, that you feel like have especially moved you or that been momentous for you?

DAVID BYRNE: Oh, myself?

LATIF: Yeah!

DAVID BYRNE: Well, this show. My co-writer, Mala, her writing is much more poetic than mine. Mine is more kind of everyday. I like everyday speech. Lots of ums and ahs and "Hey, hey!"

LATIF: Yeah.

DAVID BYRNE: All that kind of stuff.

LATIF: Yeah.

DAVID BYRNE: And hers is much more poetic. But together, we get some kind of balance between the two that I think in the end I thought I would have never ever come up with that by myself.

LATIF: Hmm. Please tell me that there was a moment where you were writing a very logical, everyday sentence and then she was like, "Stop making sense!"

[audience laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: [laughs]

LATIF: But okay. But okay, like, what—because these issues that we're talking about, these are non-trivial problems. Like the echo chamber, the blind—the collective blind spots, like, these are—these are real problems that are making it hard for us to exist as a democracy. If you have a relative who you've ever talked about vaccines with or something, I mean, you've felt this on a real level. Like, what is the hack here? What's our way out of this? Thalia?


LATIF: Please.


LATIF: No pressure.

THALIA WHEATLEY: I think it's trying to get, as you said David, get out of your comfort zone. Trying to make sure you have connections with some people who don't necessarily see everything the same way you do. I love it when, like, students are thrown together with roommates from different backgrounds. I think we don't do enough of that. We just gravitate towards our friends because, you know, it's just easier. And—but that's problematic. I think if we try to listen to different music on occasion, try to—try to understand. You know, if you're a liberal, try to understand. Try to find a conservative that isn't—you know, you don't think is absolutely crazy ...

[audience laughs]

THALIA WHEATLEY: ... and try—you know, because there's a point of view there that isn't necessarily nuts. So—and vice versa obviously. So right, I think trying to break out of that kind of bubble that you might be in is really, really important, but it's getting increasingly challenging, especially the way we absorb our news and get our information.

LATIF: Yeah. Well, what about you, David? Do you have any thoughts about—I mean, because I feel like you've kind of—you've done it in your career. You keep breaking the form you just made. Yeah.

DAVID BYRNE: I am not sure I could recommend that to everybody.

LATIF: [laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, there's certain aspects of society we want reliability, and not something, "Oh, our store doesn't sell that anymore because I felt—I felt I wanted to do something different."

LATIF: Yeah. The surgeon is like, "I'm trying a new site-specific thing here."

DAVID BYRNE: [laughs] We don't want that.

LATIF: Yeah, yeah.

DAVID BYRNE: Wow. [laughs] I'm—one thing I've learned is that, no matter how smart we think we are, we're all susceptible to this stuff.

LATIF: But I do think, like, as just having seen that show and still starry-eyed from it, like, I do think that's one of the beautiful things about the show—which is not spoiling anything—I do think it's a kind of a—it's a kind of tribute to intellectual humility. It's about how, like, at the very—at the very most basic level of the machinery we are born with, you know, you know a lot less than you think you do. And—and even that you have sort of based your—the parts of you that you've based your whole sense of self on, those aren't as concrete as you—as you kind of wish they were.

DAVID BYRNE: Exactly. And the tricky part is let the audience feel—and everyone else—that this is not a bad thing. This changeability and malleability and sometimes the unreliability is not entirely bad. It sounds like you're delivering bad news, but it actually allows us the possibility of change. Because if we weren't malleable, we'd have one idea, one point of view and stick with it to the end of our lives. And that would be kind of terrible.

LATIF: Yeah.

[audience applauds]

THALIA WHEATLEY: I think we get kind of—I think that's absolutely right. I mean, I know is as a neuroscientist that our brains are constantly changing. But I think we—that comes in tension with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and the stories other people tell us about who we are. Because stories by design are made to stick. A good story sticks, right? The best success a story could ever have is being handed down generation to generation unchanged, right? And so we get stuck, I think, in these stories about ourselves that don't respect the fact that we are actually changing and capable of change.

THALIA WHEATLEY: And so I think one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves is to shake off an old story, a story that maybe fit us 10 years ago, or maybe when we were kids, but doesn't define us now. And when I go home to visit my parents—I love my parents. I don't know if they're watching. But they love me, but they have a story about me that got stuck when I was, like, age 12. And at age 12, I was kind of a lazy, unmotivated mess. And so every time I come home, I'm that kid, you know? Like, that's how they see me. And they love me despite it, but that's how they see me. And it doesn't really matter what I've done with my life since then, I'm still that 12-year-old lazy, unmotivated mess.

THALIA WHEATLEY: And I internalized that for a really long time, you know? Until—until actually after I got tenure at an Ivy League school, right? And then I thought, you know, there's data here. You know, I don't think this story fits me anymore you know?

LATIF: I love imagining the scene of the tenure committee interviewing your parents and they're being, "She's so lazy and unmotivated."

DAVID BYRNE: [laughs]

LATIF: There is a thing—we are almost out of time, but there was one thing that was just so great that Thalia said, and this will—just is the perfect ender to an evening like this, about applause. Do you want to ...?

THALIA WHEATLEY: Sure. Well, this doesn't happen all the time, but sometimes when applause goes on a really long time, like when you're waiting for a band to come back for an encore, the crowd will spontaneously synchronize. The drive to synchronize with our neighbors is really, really strong. And so this weird thing happens where we start off all sort of asynchronous smattering of applause, and then it's like [claps] this, right? So just throwing it out there. I don't know how long the applause is gonna go on, but it might just happen.

LATIF: Have you noticed that at shows?

DAVID BYRNE: Especially when—yeah, what Thalia says when it's—it has to go on so it's trying to bring the band back.

LATIF: Right.

DAVID BYRNE: So there's a prolonged ...

LATIF: And it's like it's almost as if we do it together at the same rhythm, that'll bring them out.


LATIF: Yeah, yeah. Okay. Well, I think we are—we are basically out of time here. I just—first of all, I wanted to thank these two wonderful folks.

[audience applauds]

LATIF: Thank you, David, for putting on—I mean, years in the making, this gorgeous show that I hope all of you get to see. Not to mention, I guess you did a few other things before that. Thank you.

DAVID BYRNE: Thank you.

LATIF: Thank you, Thalia, for helping us to make sense of this machinery we all have in our heads that none of us understand, apparently. Really appreciate it. And thank you all for coming. And now it's like—it's actually kind of an experiment what you're gonna do when you applaud.

[audience laughs]

DAVID BYRNE: [laughs]

LATIF: But thank you all so much! I hope you have a great night.

[audience applauds]

LATIF: I forgot my phone. Oh!

["Theater of the Mind" music]

DAVID BYRNE: [singing] "The theater of the mind, the theater of the mind. You don't know what you'll find. The theater of the mind."

DAVID BYRNE: [singing] "It's all inside your head. It's all inside your head. The things you think you said, well, they're all inside your head."

LULU: So, like, I don't know who I am, but that might allow me to kind of fly through the rest of my life like a kite, and, you know, and have better encounters and take more risks. And ...

LATIF: Yeah. Yeah. That I'm—I'm not the person who always does this. I'm—I'm not the person who always—you know, always has to wait for someone else to approach me. Like, I can—I could—oh, yeah. Sure. I could—maybe there was one time when I did—sure. Maybe, yeah. Let's do it. Let's try it. Yeah.

LULU: It's a—it's a—yeah, kite is the feeling I keep having. It's like a re-visioning of feeling untethered instead about feeling swirling, it's kind of liberating.


LULU: That's cool. Okay. anything else?

LATIF: Last thing I need to say, I think, is a big hat tip for pre-production research to Suzie Lechtenberg, and as well special thanks to everybody at the Arbutus Foundation and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts as well as Boen Wong and Heather Radke.

LULU: Boen! Heather! Cool! All right.

LATIF: See you next time. I mean, to the extent that we can see one another. You get what I mean. Catch you on the flip side.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad, and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Akedi Foster-Keys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

[LISTENER: Hi, I'm Ron from India. Leadership support for Radiolab science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]


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